When we were young, we had a host of animals, mostly cats and dogs, but with a couple of Guinea pigs and hermit crabs thrown in for good measure. One of our best, and most ill-behaved, pets was a sixty-pound Golden Retriever named Dusty who had a habit of escaping at the first sound of the open screen door, usually taking my frail grandmother down with him as he bounded outside, happy to be running free and in the fresh air. I can speak favorably and lovingly of him now because he’s been dead for thirty-five years but back when he was living with us, well, he was a royal pain in the tuchus.
My parents both worked in those days so my grandmother was charged with getting us off to school with our frozen bologna sandwiches and Devil Dogs, a dime each for the carton of warm milk we would buy when lunchtime rolled around. My grandmother didn’t drive, so getting us on the bus was imperative because once the bus left, if one of us hadn’t made it on, we would have to walk close to two miles to get to school. Now that doesn’t sound like a long distance now, but back then, our legs were shorter and the miles seemed interminable. Suffice it to say that we would ran, en masse, when we heard the squeal of the breaks, someone older pushing someone younger ahead so that we didn’t have to hoof it. We always made it.
Except for one day.
Dusty had a travelin’ jones that beautiful fall morning and was just waiting for the chance to get out and run pell-mell throughout the neighborhood. I went out after him, chasing him all the way down our street toward the reservoir, begging him to come back home. I knew I had all of five or six minutes to make this happen, but as luck would have it, he was out without his leash or even his collar so I had to pin him to the ground and basically drag him up the street, his sixty pounds feeling like a thousand as we inched our way up the street toward home and the bus stop. We were about halfway up when I heard the familiar siren song of the bus coming down the street and saw my siblings running toward its open doors. That’s when I began to cry.
Through some sheer force of will, I did manage to get the dog the two hundred and fifty feet back to the house, where I threw him inside and cried to my grandmother that not only would I have to walk to school, I would now be late and probably have to serve detention, meaning that I would have to walk home, too. She cried right along with me, apologizing for never having gotten her license and trying to figure out what we could do to get me to school in time for the bell. Desperate, I ran outside and spied my neighbor, Bobby, getting into his brand-new Mustang convertible, the one with the white leather seats, the one that he didn’t let any of us near. He was on his way to his job as a first-year teacher at a local high school and while I won’t go so far as to say that he was unhappy to see me, let’s just say that, well, seeing me crying in my uniform with my book bag wasn’t the way he wanted to start his day. I begged him for a ride, explaining the tale of dragging Dusty up the street and missing the bus, the same one that two of his younger brothers rode with me to St. Catherine’s. He finally relented after my grandmother intervened, making me sit at the edge of the passenger-side seat, lest my plaid uniform leave some kind of deleterious stain on the white leather upholstery.
I spent the day smoldering with rage at the dog, who was a colossal pain in the butt about 90% of the time. In addition to escaping, he ate our socks, our sweaters, our shoes; he stole things from kids disembarking the school bus; he barked at things we couldn’t see; and he needed to be loved and petted constantly even in the middle of dinner. But when I got home, and he ran to me, slobbering and jumping and just so excited to see me, I could do nothing but hug him and kiss him because when all was said and done, he was just a dog. And a beautiful, fun, loving one at that who adored me in spades and who had a bad habit of escaping when he should have been napping next to my grandmother.
Dusty died at the age of two, after a brief, but horrible, illness, right around the time that he stopped escaping and started becoming the dog we always wanted. I will never forget my mother, painting the trim in our bathroom, crying and telling me that she didn’t think we could ever get another dog because she just got too attached and it was too painful when they died. She cried for several days and while I couldn’t really understand it then—the kids and I moved on with extreme alacrity—I do now.
Intellectually, when we get a pet, we know that they are only ours for a short time in the grand scheme of things but the comfort and pleasure we get while they are here on earth with us is so powerful and all-encompassing that we can’t resist the pull to ownership. With my dog advancing in age, I’m already thinking about getting another dog so that when she goes—and it will happen—I’ll have someone else to comfort me in her absence. She is a part of our family and plays just as important a role as the humans who make up our little band of Barbieris.
I was thinking about our pets—both past and present—this weekend after I got a call from a good friend telling me that her beloved dog, a miniature Schnauzer named Stella, had died suddenly and unexpectedly. The shock of hearing that, coupled with the knowledge of how much I love our little Westie and our big, giant cat, made me so sad that I burst into the tears, my friend and I crying over the loss of this twenty-pound animal who loved to bark at squirrels, who played with my dog in the summer while the kids swam in the pool, and who loved to bury her bone in the couch cushions to protect it for later consumption. So while this blog may seem like just a bunch of ramblings about a disobedient Golden Retriever named Dusty, it is a tribute to all of our beloved pets, the ones who grace our lives for a short time but who bring us so much joy and happiness while they are here.
To Stella—I hope you are enjoying a big, giant JumBone in heaven.
Stiletto faithful, tell us about your favorite memory of a beloved pet.